It's down to the wire: With a few days left before final mail-in results are tallied, nearly three-fourths of U.S. households have returned their census form.
But many fast-growing states in the South and West still lag in participation. Results from the decennial head count are used to apportion seats in the U.S. House and allocate federal funding.
As of Friday afternoon, about 86 million households had mailed back their forms. That 72 percent rate matches the response in 2000, an important milestone given growing public apathy toward surveys, not to mention political challenges ranging from anti-government sentiment to tensions over immigration.
"By this unexpectedly high participation rate, the nation has demonstrated its support of the 2010 census," said Census Bureau director Robert Groves.
The announcement came as the Census Bureau gears up for the most difficult part of its high-stakes count. Officials will announce the final mail participation rate next Wednesday. Then, beginning May 1, more than 600,000 census workers will fan out across the country to knock on the doors of those who did not respond by mail.
The overall high mail-in response was buoyed mostly by higher than expected participation in the East and Midwest. Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina each beat their 2000 response rates by five percentage points or more, with total participation of 73 percent of higher.
Still, 27 states — many in the South and West — continued to lag from 2000. Among the laggards are California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico, which stand to the lose the most with federal funding and House seats if their higher proportions of Latino and young residents aren't fully counted.
California, the nation's most populous state, is at risk of losing a House seat for the first time in decades. The state had 70 percent participation as of Friday, down from 73 percent in 2000. Groves plans to visit California next week to review outreach efforts.
The Census Bureau says one of its main worries is whether tensions over immigration will discourage Hispanics from responding, particularly in certain states. Arizona — where the state legislature has passed a tough immigration enforcement bill — is a source of concern.
"As we move into the next phase of the 2010 census, residents should be aware that census workers will soon be in neighborhoods across the country to follow up with households that have not yet responded," said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke. "We urge continued cooperation as we work to count every person in the country."
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